IN DEPTH Five Kachin parties to compete against USDP proxy in elections
An interesting political battle is looming in Kachin State, where six ethnically based parties have registered for the general election due to take place later this year.
They include the Unity and Democracy Party of Kachin State – a proxy of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party – which was the only Kachin party to receive permission from the Union Election Commission to compete in the general election in 2010.
Many residents of Kachin are hoping the newly-formed parties will ensure they have better representation after this year's election, although there is concern that too many parties might be detrimental to their cause.
“Having more small Kachin parties is not good for us. Now we already have six, instead of one large party that would be much stronger in the elections,” said Maran Ja Seng Hkawng, daughter of Maran Brang Seng, who chaired the Kachin Independence Organisation until his death in 1995.
Sipping tea on a cold winter morning in the Kachin capital, Myitkyina, the immaculately-dressed Maran Ja Seng Hkawng gave no indication of the many hard years she has spent in the jungle. For nearly 25 years, she lived and worked with the Kachin Women Association in mountain areas under the control of the KIO.
“I had a chance to learn from my father; he realised since the 1970s that we could not solve the problem within our militaries,” she said. “We cannot conquer the military but at the same time the Tatmadaw cannot root up all the ethnic conflict.”
For the 2010 election, the KIO leadership supported the formation of a single Kachin party. Several of its senior leaders were given permission to resign and formed the Kachin State Progressive Party. The Union Election Commission refused to register the party, which was likely to have attracted support from voters in the state.
Some of the party's members then decided to contest the election as individuals, but were not allowed to compete.
Eventually, only the Unity and Democracy Party of Kachin State took part in the elections. Its MPs have spoken out for the Kachin people. They include UDPKS Pyithu Hluttaw MP Doi Bu, who has called for the repeal of a clause in the Unlawful Associations Act because it made contact with members of the KIO an offence.
The close relationship between the USDP and its Kachin proxy is obvious in Nay Pyi Taw.
“Members of parliament from the USDP and ethnic aligned parties, like the UDPKS, live in the guesthouse of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party located behind its party headquarters [in the capital]”, said an international development worker and close observer of parliament. “All other MPs live in the bare municipal guesthouses,” he said.
The conflict in Kachin State and the distrust of most Kachin towards the Tatmadaw and the USDP is likely to generate strong support for the new parties in the election. Many Kachin have lost faith that negotiations between the KIO and the government will produce solutions for ending the conflict.
“I'm certain this situation will remain the same for a long time to come and it will be impossible for us to go back home,” said a mother of eight who lives in Mai Na IDP camp near Myitkyina.” “We may continue fighting and kill the soldiers around here but it is not them who are in charge, it's the people from the centre.”
A 17-year ceasefire between the Tatmadaw and Kachin Independence Army collapsed in 2011 less than three months after the President U Thein Sein's nominally civilian government took power from the military. Fighting since then has displaced more than 120,000 villag-
ers in Kachin and northern Shan State.
Peace hopes plummeted last November after the Tatmadaw shelled the KIA's officer training academy at Laiza, killing 23 cadets, of whom four were Kachin and the rest from other armed ethnic groups. Fighting earlier this month at Hpakant, a centre of the lucrative jade mining trade, trapped hundreds of civilians was among the heaviest since hostilities resumed in June 2011 when the Tatmadaw attacked a KIO outpost.
The KIO says it is prepared to continue talks with the government aimed at ending the fighting in the state, in which control over natural resources, especially timber and jade, is the main source of conflict.
“Negotiation is the only way out of Myanmar's political crisis. Trust is not there now, but it must be the outcome of the talks,” KIO spokesperson Dau Kha said in the aftermath of the shelling incident. “The Tatmadaw must eventu- ally confess their wrongdoings and the ethnic peoples must get their political rights,” he said.
Maran Ja Seng Hkawng said international support for the peace process has emboldened the Tatmadaw.
“The military feel very confident now because most countries support them in the peace process. But all they do is go around to meet ethnic people, shake hands and take photos,” she said.
“We have to pressure them from any possible way, also through parliament,” she added.
The other parties apart from the Unity and Democracy Party of Kachin State that have been registered by the UEC for the election this year are the Kachin State Democratic Party, Kachin Democratic Party, Kachin National Democracy Congress Party and Lisu National Development Party. The National Democratic Force also contests elections in Kachin State.
USDP members campaigning in the run-up to the 2010 elections. Photo: Thet Htoo/EPA